Have you ever heard someone brag about how well they can multitask? They juggle all sorts of tasks simultaneously, personal and professional, to get more done in a day. They analyze data on a spreadsheet while participating in a conference call. They read over contracts while on the treadmill. They answer emails while helping their child with their homework.
Spoiler alert: Combining mundane tasks with work, or multitasking, isn’t an effective time management strategy. It’s a productivity hack that negatively affects work and causes more stress.
Here’s everything you need to know about all the pitfalls of multitasking — and how to build more mindful and productive work habits.
The Multitasking Myth
Some people like to think that multitasking allows them to get more done with less time, but if you know anyone who claims they’re an excellent multitasker, you may have noticed that, more often than not, multitasking means mistakes.
Sure, you might be able to technically finish answering all those emails while also participating in a Zoom meeting — but how thoroughly are you reading the emails, and how much are you truly participating in the discussion? Subpar work, missed information, and less meaningful interactions with your colleagues result from trying to multitask.
But why is this the case when so many professionals swear by multitasking?
Regardless of what anyone says, the only thing that can make you more efficient and effective at work is focus. While you can do two things at once, you usually can’t do two things well at once because you can only focus on one thing at a time.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “psychologists who study what happens to cognition (mental processes) when people try to perform more than one task at a time have found that the mind and brain were not designed for heavy-duty multitasking.”
The APA further states that when you try to switch between tasks, two things have to happen in your brain. First, your brain has to decide that you want to switch all your focus from the first thing to the second thing. Then, your brain has to make the cognitive switch.
That switch takes time and has a cost known as the “switching cost.” While switching costs are minimal, consider how often you change tasks when multitasking. You could go back and forth between your Zoom meeting and your emails 10, 20, or 30 times a minute; That’s many seconds lost, and it all adds up. The APA further states that, when you consider the mental blocks that sometimes occur due to this switching, you could lower your productivity by as much as 40%.
So, no, you can’t really “multitask.” Multitasking isn’t doing multiple things at once. It’s switching your concentration rapidly between numerous tasks, losing precious time.
The Consequences of Multitasking
Multitasking comes with negative consequences, as backed by science. When you multitask, you can expect to:
- Harm your overall memory function (as determined by a Stanford University study)
- Lower your efficiency (as reported by Cleveland Clinic)
- Make more mistakes
- Lower your ability to focus overall, even when not multitasking
- Negatively impact your ability to learn new skills
- Take longer to complete tasks
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4 Tips to Manage Your Time Wisely (And Give Up Your Multitasking!)
Are you one of those individuals who frequently multitask? Did you previously always think of your multitasking as a talent — but now you’re starting to see the negative consequences?
Use these tricks to manage your time wisely while avoiding falling into the multitasking mindset.
1. Prioritize Your Tasks
Before the work week begins, prioritize your tasks based on urgency and importance. This can help you focus on your most important tasks first, solely, before you switch your focus to less-important tasks. You’ll know that your attention is where it belongs, allowing you to concentrate on tasks that yield the highest ROI.
2. Block Your Time
When you’ve prioritized your tasks and know what to spend your time on, block out the required time and protect it. This can reduce the temptation to multitask and, instead, encourage focused work periods.
3. Use Tech to Your Advantage
Block out needed time on your work calendar so no one else can request a meeting with you, and you can truly focus on a task that deserves your full attention. Turn off notifications on your devices or log out of your email or Slack for a while. Set boundaries around screen time for greater concentration when needed.
4. Practice Mindful Multitasking
If you must multitask to complete everything in 24 hours, practice mindful multitasking by pairing non-concentration tasks with concentration-heavy tasks.
For example, if you told your boss you’d read that new book on career development but haven’t had time, download the audiobook and listen to it while washing the dishes or running on the treadmill.
As you choose your non-concentration and concentration-heavy tasks to pair up, be careful to select non-concentration tasks that are truly non-concentration-required. Driving through heavy traffic requires concentration, for example, and isn’t a suitable activity to pair with answering emails on your phone.
The Bottom Line
Don’t fall for the multitasking myth. Multitasking may appear to be an effective strategy for time management, but it often results in decreased productivity and increased stress. Embrace better work habits and mindful multitasking to manage your time and resources.
Looking for some support in achieving your time management goals in 2024? Learn about Arootah’s coaching program and discover how to get started today.